San Francisco 49ers: 10 Players Most Responsible for Success or Failure in 2012
As we proceed with the offseason team activities (OTAs, otherwise known as “let the coach see that you’re in shape” time), it’s safe to say that the San Francisco 49ers are going to capture a lot of attention as a serious Super Bowl contender.
Well, they should be. Among the six NFC playoff teams last year, no defense matched that of the Niners. And if the Niners were able to manufacture one slipped tackle in the fourth quarter that led to a sizable gain against the Giants, which would have led to a game-winning field goal by David Akers, there’s a very good chance that we’d be calling this year’s Niner team defending champions, not serious contenders.
Compliments are nice, but it still takes players making plays. That’s why they play the games. Here, in descending order, are the 10 49ers who will be most responsible for a very successful 2012.
No. 10: A.J. Jenkins
The speedy wide receiver out of Illinois is a Trent Baalke guy through and through. He didn’t attract a great deal of pre-draft attention because he didn’t have the gaudy yards-per-catch and TD numbers. The 49ers general manager doesn’t care about numbers in college. He cares about physical ability and individual character.
Jenkins in college had defenses geared towards stopping him. He also had subpar quarterbacks. And he made All Big-10 Academic team.
Translation: He’s used to adversity, overcame an early attitude adjustment period and developed into a first-rate player and citizen.
On the field, he has to continue that development and blow away a few cornerbacks with blinding speed.
No. 9: Randy Moss
All we need is one big play early in the season—one magical play that only Moss can make: a leap and a twist for the catch followed by afterburners that scorch pursuing defenders.
After that, teams will back up, which means less people in the box, which means more running room.
10 games later, just in case defenses get lazy and decide to single-cover Moss, he needs to do it again. Teams will stay back permanently. He may have a big impact for two catches, but then that’s the way it works when you’re in your mid-30s.
No. 8: Michael Crabtree
Prior to 2011, people said Alex Smith couldn’t do it and had to go. Smith proved that he can do it. He also showed that he has to continue to improve. But this segment isn’t about him.
Smith is best in the intermediate passing game. He is deadly accurate within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage, especially in the middle of the field. As the unique G-chord tuning is to Keith Richards, this is Michael Crabtree’s métier: slants, stops and crosses between the linebackers.
He’ll be playing in the slot more, which means easier escapes off the line and freer passage into the secondary without having to worry about getting deep as often. Crabtree should be in the 70s in terms of catches by week 15.
No. 7: LaMichael James
The rookie out of Oregon is going to be a “here and there” back. You’ll see him in on 2nd-and-long, then a kickoff return, then a goal-line play.
But each time he steps on the field, watch the defense look over. They’ll know he’s on the field. He’s there for one purpose: Hit a home run.
In football, that means break a long one.
No. 6: Justin Smith
Notice that we have to go four deep before we get to anyone on the Niner defense. That means the defense, barring injuries, is expected in my book to continue to improve to the point of becoming one of the best of all time.
This unit has size, speed, discipline and depth. There’s nothing it can’t play against, save for perhaps the 1999 Rams. Well, now that I think of it, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith might have loved to go against those deep drops by Kurt Warner.
The point is, this year’s team will be expected to make the big play when it has to make the big play. That means stopping teams on 3rd-and-1 plunges to 3rd-and-6 throws, the latter preferably ending with one or two Niner jerseys on top of the QB.
Justin Smith is the focal point of the Niners' excellent front seven, so he gets the picture on the slide.
No. 5: Anthony Davis
The New Orleans playoff game showed that Davis, now going into his third year, is good in terms of power, but not so good in quickness, particularly against DBs or fast LBs coming off his right shoulder.
There are ways to help, such as keeping a back in or lining a tight end up next to Davis. All that does, though, is limit your offensive capability. Davis can go straight ahead, but getting that right foot back immediately and turning his shoulders to face the edge rusher will be a very critical move for this up-and-coming player.
No. 4: Vernon Davis
He has nothing to prove. His play in the playoffs last January cemented his reputation as one of the best, most talented, clutch tight ends in the game. The coaching staff rewarded his efforts by going out and getting more weapons for the offense.
Ironically, the result of his stellar play and the team’s offseason moves is that, during 2012, he might get fewer passes thrown his way. Alex Smith should have more targets this year, and that’s a good thing.
If you watch the first six quarters of the two playoff games last year, you see that Davis was the most effective tool on the team. By the third quarter of the NFC Championship Game, however, Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell played his defense so oriented on Davis that he was begging the Niners to find another player to beat New York’s defense.
No. 3: Dashon Goldson
Who are the best free safeties of the last 10 years? Rodney Harrison? Probably. Ed Reed? Definitely in the argument. Troy Polamalu? Well, he plays all over, but I’d say yes as well.
Goldson has that opportunity. When you are playing behind the best front seven in football, a team that can rush the passer with deep pressure or cover as needed, the free safety serves as the “robber.” And that’s a good thing.
Oftentimes, Goldson will be asked to hang back and help out with “over” coverage on receivers who are trying to get past Carlos Rogers or Tarell Brown. That allows Goldson to look in the backfield and find where the quarterback wants to go. He did that extremely well against New Orleans. He and Rogers tied for the team lead in interceptions with six.
Goldson’s play can be fantastic, but also his missed tackle on Darren Sproles late in the New Orleans playoff game should be a reminder that Goldson doesn’t have to make the ESPN play, just the tackle. That’s good enough.
No. 2: Jonathan Goodwin
He’ll be 34 in December. He’s got a Pro Bowl on his resume. He was a late free-agent signing last year by the 49ers, yet there’s no doubt he was as important as Carlos Rogers or David Akers or anyone else.
When Goodwin went in, all of a sudden the offense wasn’t getting caught unaware of blitzes. All of a sudden Alex Smith had more time, and his passes had more accuracy. Funny thing happened after that: The Niners won and won.
Goodwin’s play has to continue. An injury here could be very detrimental to the Niners, especially since they have to fill the right guard slot with an untested player. Continued play from Goodwin and improved play from right tackle Anthony Davis will negate the importance of the play of whoever plays right guard.
Without Goodwin, however, it could get 2010-ish, and we don’t want to see that.
No. 1: Alex Smith
The improvement in play of Alex Smith in 2011 was remarkable. It wasn’t the passer rating that went from 82.1 in ’10 to 90.7 last year, nor was it the fact that he started all 16 games for the first time since 2006.
Smith, despite deep fan skepticism, poor showings in past games and a stressful relationship with his two previous coaches, became steady. Not outstanding, not flashy. Steady. Credit coach Jim Harbaugh with the following coaching credo to Smith: Don’t be a hero.
Throw it away. Take the sack. Run if you have to, but don’t get hurt. Just don’t try to do too much. And Smith did; the Niners went 13-3.
A year later, Harbaugh won’t be saying “Don’t try to do too much,” he’s going to be saying, “Let it rip.”
If the line improves and the new receivers get open, Smith, as deadly accurate in mid-range throws as any QB in the game, could ignite an offense to put up big numbers. Coupled with a defense that will prevent opponents from getting any sizable leads, an effective offense could turn the Niners into an extremely good team.
Legendary, like on par with the ’94 Super Bowl champs.
I mean, like a steady stream of 31-6 games against NFC West opponents and 10-point wins over the league’s best. Yes, "Super Bowl" is part of the 2012 vocabulary.